Are bamboo floors really green?


Bamboo floors are increasingly popular as an eco-friendly alternative. But how green are they? See more pictures of green living.
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So you want to make your home as environmentally friendly as possible. You set up your compost bin, install low-flow toilets and buy energy-efficient appliances. But when it comes to your floor, how eco-friendly can you really get? You've probably heard that bamboo floors are much kinder to the environment than traditional hardwood floors, but just how green are they?

People worldwide have used bamboo floors, and other bamboo-based products, for many years, but the United States has only recently caught on to this phenomenon. The environmental benefits of bamboo floors range from being a renewable resource to being a carbon gulper (more on that later).

However, not everything is coming up green for bamboo. Bamboo is only renewable if it's properly maintained, and the fertilizers, pesticides and clear-cutting that has become more common to keep up with the demand for bamboo has made it less than an eco champion. There's also the cost of transportation, as well as the cheaper bamboo that has popped up on the market, which is not only less durable but also may use formaldehyde emitting finishes.

­In this article, we'll discuss the environmental pros and cons of bamboo flooring, as well as alternatives and whether they're better choices for your home.

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Green Bamboo

Bamboo trees grow as fast as a foot a day.
Bamboo trees grow as fast as a foot a day.
ULTRA.F/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Let's look at what makes bamboo floors green.

First, there's bamboo's rapid growth and regeneration. Bamboo is technically a grass, not a tree, that starts with rhizomes, stems that grow underground and send shoots and leaves above ground. Once the young bamboo is planted, it takes anywhere from four to 10 years for the usable "wood" to mature. After that, the plant can grow new shoots each year. And the shoots grow quickly: as much as a foot per day [source: Bowyer].

As a result, bamboo plants can be harvested on a regular basis without killing the plant, unlike trees used in hardwood floors, which die when harvested and can take decades or longer to mature.

Because of its faster growth rate, bamboo beats most trees when it comes to carbon sequestration, how quickly it can absorb carbon. Slow absorption of carbon has been linked to contributing to the greenhouse effect and the depletion of the ozone layer. Because bamboo grows so quickly, it absorbs more carbon -- and produces more oxygen. About two-and-a-half acres of bamboo sequesters 62 tons of CO2 per year, compared with the same area of a young forest, which holds on to 15 tons of CO2 [source: Environmental Bamboo Foundation]. Additionally, bamboo generates around 35 percent more oxygen than the equivalent number of trees [source: International Network for Bamboo and Rattan].

And beyond that, high-quality bamboo is stronger than regular hardwood floors, partly due to the fact that it's a grass that bends in the wind. Because of its flexibility, high-quality bamboo is as durable as most types of hardwood.

So you're thinking: This is great, when do I start laying the bamboo? Before you buy, read on to find out why bamboo might not be as green as you think.

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Bamboo Sustainability

Although panda bears enjoy noshing on bamboo, the popularity of the reedy grass as housing material may come at the cost of biodiversity.
Although panda bears enjoy noshing on bamboo, the popularity of the reedy grass as housing material may come at the cost of biodiversity.
Gary Vestal/Photographer’s Choice/Getty Images

Before you hop in your hybrid to head to the nearest bamboo-flooring store, you should know that not everything about bamboo is eco-friendly.

First, there's getting the bamboo to you. The type of bamboo used in wood flooring is grown mostly in Asia, so to get the bamboo to the consumer, it must be shipped, which is costly and guzzles up energy [source: Treehugger]. Some U.S. bamboo sellers include carbon offsets in the price of the flooring; however, this only raises the price and doesn't stop the depletion of limited natural resources like oil. It also doesn't solve the questionable labor practices found in countries like China, the main supplier of bamboo.

Second, there's the urea, a type of formaldehyde used to finish many types of bamboo. Formaldehyde is a Volatile Organic Compound (VOC), which reduces indoor air quality. There are other options for getting the bamboo the color you desire, including heating it, but heating bamboo wood decreases its strength, oftentimes making it less durable than regular wood. For more on bamboo flooring construction, see How Bamboo Flooring Works.

Finally, bamboo has become so profitable that the lower income, rural residents who originally benefited from farming it are succumbing to market pressures. To keep up with demand, farmers are increasingly using fertilizers and pesticides, which leach into the ground and contaminate groundwater [source: Bowyer].

Forests also are being cleared to make room for the more profitable bamboo. While bamboo is good at preventing soil erosion, the initial deforestation and time it takes for the bamboo to establish itself leaves the land vulnerable. Additionally, while bamboo makes a good habitat for a large number of insects, birds and animals, there are other species that only call tree forests home; replacing much of the tree forests with bamboo decreases biodiversity in the region [source: Bamboo Flooring Report].

Now that you've learned the less-than-green side of bamboo flooring, you may be wondering, "What other eco-friendly options do I have?" Read on to find out about alternatives to hardwood and bamboo floors.

Alternatives to Bamboo Floors

Another renewable source you can choose for your flooring is cork, which can be stripped from the tree without killing it.
Another renewable source you can choose for your flooring is cork, which can be stripped from the tree without killing it.
Don Klumpp/Photographer’s Choice/Getty Images

If you're having second thoughts about bamboo flooring but still want an environmentally friendly way to walk through your home, there are alternatives.

One option growing in popularity is cork. It's considered a renewable source because stripping the bark of the cork tree does not kill it. Cork floors also are made of the waste material of the cork. The original material is used for the corks found in bottles; the discarded material is then ground up to be used as flooring material. To learn more about cork production, see Where does cork come from?

However, cork has its flaws too. For example, it doesn't mimic the look of hardwood floors the way that bamboo does, so there's an aesthetic issue. And cork is grown in Mediterranean climates, so there's still the issue of transportation [source: Novitski].

Other alternatives to bamboo and hardwood floors include:

  • recycled wood
  • linoleum
  • tile
  • wool carpeting
  • straw
  • earthen floors
  • cement

­­Each of these has their own benefits -- tile is strong, earthen floors use the materials already on site. But each has their own downsides, too -- wool is often imported from New Zealand and cement is very unforgiving for household living. And many of these methods are still relatively new in U.S. homes, so finding the materials and labor may be as costly -- economically and environmentally -- as traditional floors.

As a consumer, probably your best chance for a green floor is to research what's available in your area and balance that with the cost and aesthetic values. To learn about more green flooring options, take a walk through the links on the next page.

Related How Stuff Works Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Aho, Karen. "Is bamboo flooring really green?" MSN Real Estate. Accessed Aug. 25, 2008. http://realestate.msn.com/improve/green/article2.aspx?cp-documentid=6229250
  • "Bamboo Flooring." Build It Green. Aug. 11, 2007. Accessed Aug. 25, 2008. http://www.builditgreen.org/webfm_send/47
  • "Bamboo products and trade." Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed Aug. 25, 2008. ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a1243e/a1243e04.pdf
  • Bowyer, Jim, Jeff Howe, Phil Guillery and Kathryn Fernholz. "Bamboo Flooring: Environmental Silver Bullet or Faux Savior?" March 15, 2005. Accessed Aug. 25, 2008. http://www.dovetailinc.org/documents/DovetailBamboo0305.pdf
  • Center for International Forestry Research. Accessed Sept. 3, 2008. http://www.cifor.cgiar.org/
  • Environmental Bamboo Foundation. Accessed Aug. 25, 2008. http://www.bamboocentral.org/shareinrepair/faq.htm#05
  • Forest Stewardship Council. Accessed Sept. 3, 2008. http://www.fscus.org/
  • International Network for Bamboo and Rattan. Accessed Aug. 25, 2008. http://www.inbar.int/
  • Novitski, B.J. "Rapidly Renewable Materials' Complex Calculus." Continuing Education. Vol. 260 No. 14.
  • Treehugger. Accessed Aug. 25, 2008. http://www.treehugger.com/
  • U.S. Green Building Council. Accessed Sept. 3, 2008. http://www.usgbc.org/